As the Labor Day weekend wrapped up Monday evening, news had already spread among 800,000 undocumented immigrants across the country who had put their faith in the American government.
They’d all arrived as young children to the United States and, for the past five years, lived under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Established by executive order during the Obama administration, qualifying for the program allowed individuals living and thriving in the only home they’d ever known a work permit and protection from deportation to places they’ve never known.
But widely reported rumors over the long weekend hinted at what was confirmed by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions Tuesday morning: The Donald J. Trump administration had moved forward on campaign promises to end DACA.
More than 150 people gathered Monday in the plaza facing the Clifford Davis federal building in downtown Memphis. The wind made rows of flags from all over the world wave as about 15 students, mostly in high school and college, led a vigil with prayer and testimony.
Tennessee has more than 8,000 DACA recipients. When President Barack Obama implemented the program in 2012, he emphasized it as a stopgap measure. Established through executive order, DACA served as a compromise at a time when Congress could not compromise on what to do with the thousands of young folks brought illegally to this country by their parents, who were looking for safety and opportunity. The program does not offer a pathway to citizenship (which does not exist in the straightforward manner in which it is spoken). Beneficiaries are afforded a temporary reprieve from deportation, and must reapply and pay a fee every two years.
While the current administration, in Session’s words, sees this ending this program as a remedy to “unilateral executive amnesty” that created “a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border that yielded terrible humanitarian consequences,” students on the plaza presented how they felt their futures were affected by DACA’s end, using “death” as a metaphor.
The students lined up at the back of the parting crowd and processed toward a pearlescent casket. One by one, they ripped signs off their necks bearing their professional goals and dropped them in the open end of the casket along with rolled up pieces of paper symbolizing their diplomas.
Congress has six months to move on legislation to keep the program alive. The Dream Act of 2017, a bipartisan reincarnation of longstanding efforts to help legalize young immigrants, is being touted as a possible answer. For now, no new applications dated after Sept. 5, 2017 will be accepted, but folks with permits set to expire by March 5, 2018 can apply for renewal if they do so by Oct. 5, 2017.
A nationwide push is on to help DACA recipients work through the paperwork in time. Latino Memphis will hold sessions at its offices to help students deal with this change and reapply ahead of the deadline. The first is 4 p.m. Sept. 6.
“These Dreamers, which want nothing more than to work toward their American dream and contribute to the country they call home, will no longer be eligible to work,” according to Latino Memphis. “Yet, Memphis currently has 16,000 job openings that it cannot fill. Why have we made it a crime to want to work?”
Beyond the six months, the last of the active permits will expire in 2020. With increasingly volatile enforcement of laws against immigrants and concerns around DACA recipients’ information within arms reach of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement posing huge challenges, actions and reactions will need to be swift for folks seeking protection. Tuesday brought protests locally and nationally with student walk outs in Denver and arrests in New York.
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